GEI CHAN, FASHION DESIGNER

FIELD: FASHION DESIGN HOME: SEATTLE


A. | What are you most proud of in your career?

I pioneered a look that turned a small company of only 5 employees into a multi-million dollar business (with 200 employees) in a few short years.  Although I never got credit as the designer (the owner was the face of the company) my dresses were carried by major retailers of the time across the US, worn by practically every teen girl in America and copied by other manufacturers.  It wasn’t until recently did I realize the impact my Renaissance/ hippie prairie/ folk dress designs had on a generation of young women.  I was the very first designer to mix prints in a single garment.  It was never done before 1969.  Not a big deal now, but back in the day it was unusual. 

A. | What is your work routine? What does your job entail? 

Since I am not working in the industry anymore, my time is my own.  And I don’t have to concern myself with buyers or the consumer.  So there is total freedom now to create what I want.  I work in spurts, intensely around the clock:  eat, sleep, and breathe it if I am working on a special collection.  It’s easier to do that since I now work at home, surrounding myself 24/7 with fabric everywhere - along with my patterns, sketches, and half sewn samples.  Maybe I’ll stop for a bit to eat, walk around the block, head to the fabric store.  But I cannot stop until I am done.  This extreme behavior will go on for months.  Then I’ll take a break for several months and just shop the stores.

A. | How did you become interested in the fashion industry? 

As a small town kid browsing Seventeen Magazine, then other fashion magazines fueled a strong interest in clothes.  But as a teen in the early ‘60s I was hoping to become an artist, drawing, painting portraits.  The fashion illustrations in the San Francisco Examiner were also an inspiration. But what truly inspired me was a small black and white photo in Time Magazine of a jacket and mid-calf skirt by Yves St Laurent.  After taking private sewing lessons from a former family friend designer I realized that designing clothes could be a viable profession my Chinese practical-minded parents could accept.

A. | What do you do outside our your work routine? 

During the years when I was actively designing there really was no self-time.  I was a parent and my husband, who was a television producer, was out of town a lot. I recall I would collect travel brochures and browse them to relax. But mainly music was important to me.

A. | What is fashion? How does fashion play a role in your life? 

Creating looks from great contemporary pieces is a fun and expensive hobby.  At my age it is not as easy to find stylish, age appropriate clothing.  I love shopping, seeing what’s new.  But I am a little too lazy to design for myself – especially after so many years in the apparel industry as a designer and later as a boutique owner.  But I do enjoy encouraging young designers, connecting fashion folks to one another.  Friends also ask for fashion advice. It’s all fun now.

A. | What are the biggest challenges you have overcome (personally and professionally)?

Professionally: My first year as a fashion design student was miserable.  I was not a very experienced sewer so it was a nightmare to use the school’s industrial power sewing machines that had a life of their own.  In fact, I did more ripping out than actual sewing.  At that design school my ideas were met with barely disguised scorn because I thought outside the box, whereas the other students took their lead from the famous established Paris designers.  

Another challenge I had to overcome was breaking the race barrier: Asians typically were hired at manufacturing companies in technical positions; pattern making, grading, sewing – but not as the lead designer. 

One other major challenge was not having a mentor, no one at that design school ever reached that level professionally so there wasn’t anyone who could advise me.  I did not know how to handle professional jealousy, when someone was threatened by my success or creativity.  

Personally: My first marriage suffered and ended because I was going in a million directions at once, not only designing professionally, but also got involved with theatre production before opening my own business.  There was never any time for a relationship.  Luckily my second husband (going on 33 years now) is a good fit and is just as active and outgoing.  I could be totally myself with him. 

A. | Where do you feel at home?

I am at home at special events, meeting new people, greeting people. For example: I was totally comfortable leading one of the Seattle Art Museum’s Highly Opinionated tours to a group of 32 people a few years back.  This was for a fashion exhibit.  I could also spend countless hours in a fabric store. Mostly I enjoy working with the public. 

A. | What is your vision for the future of your work?

I plan to get more involved with Muses, a small non-profit organization that trains low-income immigrants and refugees for apparel industry sewing jobs (but I will not teach sewing!)  I will support them in fundraising efforts. 

As for my own work, I will design special one-of-a-kind items for either KOBO of Momo.  Possibly create a 12 piece Asian-influenced collection for a group fashion presentation (not a traditional runway show) perhaps at a gallery – to go with music I have in mind. 

A. | How does oppression and privilege influence people’s success in your field?

I really am opposed to what I consider “slave labor” , especially in developing countries where they construct “fast fashion”.  Here is an interesting the link.

(In fact, it was attorney and activist Lora Jo Foo in her younger years who sewed my first collection, helped me get through my first year of design school)

As far as privilege:  Money speaks.  Anyone these days can call himself or herself a “designer” if they have the resources to launch their own line, with the funds to hire a great marketing team. 

A. | How do you define success?

Success for me is freedom.  Freedom to have the opportunities to use the gifts we possess to enhance the lives of others. 

A. | What does “sustainability” mean to you in the context of fashion and business?

Being responsible in the manufacturing process of garments and being responsible consumers.  What individual consumers can do to reduce waste is to recycle or revamp garments whether it is buying used clothing and mixing with what’s in your closet or redesigning used clothes, creating a new look.  A hundred years ago children’s clothing were made from cut down adult dresses.  I’d like to share this link to Muses: 

A. | What makes a good team?

Mutual respect for the skills and talents of everyone involved.  A good mix of experiences, led by forward thinking leaders who aren’t afraid to work hard and take risks. 

A. | Why did you change careers to public relations? Why did you come back to fashion?

I left the fashion business and dabbled in television production for a solid two years, working for KQED TV in San Francisco, a PBS station, as a stage manager, set designer of a cooking show, and also wardrobe coordinator for actress Mary Martin’s talk show. (She was the original Broadway star of Peter Pan, Sound Of Music, Annie Get Your Gun.) 

The reason for the major change had to do with a divorce from my first husband in 1980 after years of designing for manufacturing companies and then running my own retail boutique.  I wanted people in the fashion industry to know about the divorce, but didn’t want to deal with them feeling sorry for me.  So when I was sure everyone knew, I then returned to fashion, but as chair of the Fashion Design Dept at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) San Francisco campus.  By that time I was remarried to a producer of a then popular Emmy Award winning television show.  

A. | What was your biggest failure?

In the summer of 1974 I took a break from designing and studied acting full time in San Francisco with The American Conservatory Theatre’s Summer Training Congress.  At that time auditions were mandatory for entrance into their acting program.  The artistic director at that time, William Ball, told us, “If you fail – fail BIG. “   My biggest failure was doing a fashion show without proper support or funding. It was a mistake allowing myself to be used by these two young women, total strangers with no credentials who supposedly were to take charge of the marketing and promotion of the show.  (They only wanted a chance to sing on the stage after the fashion show.)  They did absolutely nothing to sell tickets.  Meanwhile I was busy working full time designing for Gunne Sax and on my off hours designed 60 looks, spending thousands of dollars out of my own pocket.  A rock band was hired for after the show.  Turned out only a handful of friends attended.  It was humiliating.  After I paid off everyone I only had $50 left to pay the band.  I felt horrible.  What a waste of time, money and energy.  Never again.

A. | Where do you see room for the most creativity for your work?

Probably special occasion or costuming.  I don’t see my designs as normal everyday wear.  I still like to mix textures, shapes and fabrics into unconventional designs.  The latest group was based on the Japanese festival coats.  I enjoy designing for special events if I have a say in the quality of the production and not have to worry about selling the pieces.  

A. | What do you think are the most important traits in your industry?

Willingness to pay your dues, take the time to understand fit and garment construction, be able to meet deadlines, have a sound business plan, be detail oriented, understand trends, be honest and get along with everyone you work with, think outside the box – but most important, leave your ego out the door.  Creativity is being flexible and being able to find solutions to whatever arises.

A. | For which unexpected events should you prepare in your career? 

You can never be fully prepared, but at least make sure you have enough capital for any emergencies.  When I opened my boutique in San Francisco in April 1978 I was looking forward to my first holiday season.  However, Nov. 1978 was when the city of San Francisco mourned the assassination of Mayor George Moscone and supervisor, Harvey Milk.  Sale all over the city all season was flat.  This tragedy came the same month as the“Jonestown” (the Jim Jones’ Peoples’ Temple) mass suicide of San Franciscans in Gyana.  Nothing could have prepared me for that.  To rally my customers, I invested in all new fabrics and hosted in-store fashion shows, hiring the city’s top models for a show in Feb. and another in April.  That saved my business. 

A. | What would you recommend to yourself 20 years ago?

Do your homework. It is a mistake to jump into something without taking the time to research, get all your ducks in a row.  I would have advised myself to first work in retail before deciding to open my boutique and then make sure I have the proper support.  The hours and demands in retail differ considerably from garment production.  I was not prepared for all the weekends, evenings, and holidays required in owning and operating a store. 

In 1985 I produced my own line of professional maternity attire for Macy’s, but that was for one season only.  I discontinued when I became pregnant with my second child.  By then I realized the difficulty in balancing a personal life with professional success in the business of garment manufacturing.

A. | Any other production advice you would like to share?

Yes, learn about production by working for a small design firm.  That way you can gain experience in all aspects of the business.  Should you decide to start your own design business after that, with yourself as the designer, then your first hire should be a production manager.  And pay people what they are worth. 

Also, if you understand garment construction, your production patterns, markers, sewing etc. contracting prices can be significantly lowered avoiding waste.